Leaders have always been selective with knowledge,
Not only knowledge to people but to themselves,
Choosing to remain ignorant about matters that do not match,
Their desired version of reality.
The beat inside the building was strange, disorienting, loud. The walls were shaking with each thump, and the ground itself seemed to be vibrating with an undulating, unnatural melody. Atienna was half-certain that if she were to cut open her chest and pull out her heart she would find it thumping to the same rhythm of the beat. A synchronization of a different variety. A morbid thought.
There were bright lights streaming in from down the hall—blues, reds, oranges, and purples. Cooler colors than she had become accustomed to aside from that deep green that seemed to have made home in every single banner, sign, and store front here.
“You know what?” Werner was saying as he pulled her long. He tugged her close and then threw his arm around her shoulder. “With you here, we’re almost all together now! You, me, Ollie, Caddy, J-man. I think Shion might be coming too. I wish Mari could come. She’s always so busy…”
A large, spacious room opened up at the end of the hall. It wasn’t quite dark but it wasn’t quite well-lit either. A strange, large ball that spun in place hung down from the center of the ceiling. Its coating consisted of many small, square glass panels. Right beside that ball was something that looked a little like a stage light except it produced a multitude of colors all at once: blue, red, yellow, and that green again. The lights bounced off of the panels which reflected distorted blobs of light around the room as the ball spun.
Beneath that spinning display was a raised platform stage. Expanding out from that center point was a circular wooden flooring caged in by metal railings split by two entrances on opposite sides. Bench-tables lined the periphery of those railings. The tables, the circular wooden floor, the rugged area surrounding it—filled to the brim with chattering crowds. Most glided across the wooden floorboards to the beat of the song; others occupied the tables and chattered—shouted rather—amicably.
“Gil! Carl!” Werner released Atienna and waved. “Klaus! You guys made it!”
Sitting together at one of those tables were Gilbert, Carl, Klaus, and Derik. It seemed as if Derik has already gotten re-acquainted with the rest of the group as he was already sneering at Carl.
“Yeah, no thanks to you,” Gilbert grumbled once Atienna neared with Werner.
“Huh?” Werner’s smile faltered. “What do you mean?”
“You hung us dry,” Carl provided. “Ditched us in daylight.”
“I… think there was a misunderstanding,” Klaus tried after looking to Gilbert. “Captai—Werner, we thought you were going to take us here.”
“Oh. I’m sorry…” Werner frowned. “I didn’t know you all wanted to come with me… I’ll make it up to you. I promise. I’ll drive you to the next roller disc—”
“That and you made us think war wasn’t a thing here,” Gilbert interjected. “What the hell was up with that…?”
“Oh…” Werner fiddled with his hands. “Well… you all were confused and I didn’t want you to feel scared so I thought ‘What’s the best thing that’ll always make people happy?’ A world without war! Right…?”
Gilbert sighed. “Forget it. Where’s the gloomy-looking guy?”
“He means my brother,” Carl clarified, sending Gilbert a glare from across the table. “Francis. He’s going to be here, isn’t he?”
“Oh!” Werner nodded. “Fran-fran?”
“Saints. I’m gonna ignore you sayin’ that,” Carl growled. “Where is he?”
Werner pointed to the wooden circular area. “He’s probably on the rink somewhere. Whenever you guys open up a new place, he’s always out talking to people. He says it’s ‘building rapport.’ Sounds really cool, right?”
“Yeah.” Carl rose from his seat. “He learned it from me.”
“Alright. We’ll touch point with him and then get the Sagittarians on board. Derik told me about them already.” Gilbert rose too. “Let’s go—”
“To the rink?” Werner asked. “We can’t go to the rink without our shoes, Gil!”
Gilbert arched a brow, sighed, and kicked out his foot. “Werner. I’m wearing shoes.”
“Oh, no—I mean our rollerblading shoes, Gil! The ones with the wheels. It’s fun, but there are rules. You know—to keep everyone safe!” He chuckled. “You can mix flour and cinnamon, but you can’t mix regular shoes and roller blades—”
“Yeah, no.” Carl squeezed himself out from the table but was stopped by a hand around the wrist.
Werner’s grip seemed rather tight.
“Carl, we have to follow the rules,” Werner said seriously. “We’ll make other people in Ndoto unhappy if we don’t. We can’t do that.”
Something odd in the air changed, and Atienna couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
Werner released Carl and chuckled. “Let’s make sure everyone has a good time, okay?”
Carl opened his mouth to retort—
“Hey,” Gilbert interjected. “We’ve almost got it. Let’s keep a low profile for now. It wouldn’t kill you to wear some shoes, would it?”
“Seriously?” Carl replied thickly.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get the shoes for all of you. We can rent them at the booth over there.”
Werner quite literally rolled back into Atienna’s view. He was wearing the same roller blades that the others in the rink were wearing and was also carrying a handful of them. He placed one in front of everyone and personally delivered roller blades directly into Atienna’s hands. Carl grumbled.
Atienna accepted them after a moment’s hesitation, sat down at the adjacent table, and slid both shoes on before trying them out on the floor. As she assumed, they were exceedingly difficult to move on. She eyed the Capricornians and found that they’d already slid their shoes on and had tied up all the shoelaces with ease. Carl seemed to be the only one struggling.
She moved to her left shoe and began to tie the laces there—using what she assumed was Werner’s muscle memory. These novelties were reminiscent of military boots—minus the wheels, of course.
“Damn it…” Carl muttered as he continued to struggle. “This has to be Capricornian junk. Overly complicated…”
Gilbert snorted. “Well, your family name is on the back of the building so that’s on you.”
Werner sank to his knees in front of Atienna and took the shoelaces of her right shoe. He made quick work of it before hopping up to his feet as Atienna finished her last knot.
“What’s the point of all this …?” Derik muttered, testing his shoes and sliding away from the table. “Running around in circles. The girls are cute, I guess—ack!” He slipped forward and would’ve face planted if Werner hadn’t caught him.
“What’s the point?” Werner repeated as he whipped around and he took Atienna’s hand. “There isn’t a point. It’s just fun.” He peered at Derik. “Are you okay, Derik? You seem kind of different.”
Derik opened his mouth from where he was leaning against the table, but he shut it after Gilbert kicked his shin from beneath the table. “Fine,” he grunted.
“Alrighty.” Werner abruptly pulled Atienna up to a stand. She nearly lost her balance as she came forward. All those years of maneuvering across rooftops in the dead of night, dancing around the Night Circle ring, and bearing the slippery slopes of Aquarius apparently had not prepared her for this.
Werner caught and steadied her. “I’ve got you, Atienna.”
Atienna paused for a moment but barely had the time to look up at him before he began dragging her towards the rink.
“Come on,” he said eagerly. “Let’s go!”
Suddenly Atienna was no longer rolling along the rough rug but against the hardwood floor of the rink.
The rink itself was chaotic. People passing by at various speeds sped by her left and right. The ones who swerved around her were clearly practiced in their craft—some even proceeded forward backwards. The constant thuds of the wheels against the floor somehow went along to the rhythm of the music.
Atienna struggled to stay on her own two feet.
It was all so bizarre. Skating was one thing but dancing and skating?
“Aw, did you forget how to rollerblade?” Werner asked, tightening his grip around her. “That’s okay. Just hold onto me. You’ll get into the groove one way or another.”
Atienna obliged the request—more out of familiarity more than anything else. Werner guided them with ease through the crowds.
“What the hell?” came a shout from the side of the rink. “Slow down! Wait for us! Where’s Francis?!”
Atienna looked back to find Gilbert quite literally hanging over the rails of the rink.
“You can do it, Gil!” Werner cheered, waving his hand as he continued to move them forward. “It’s muscle memory!”
Gilbert lurched forward before disappearing from Atienna’s sight. She wasn’t too sure if he’d collapsed or managed to make it into the rink and was crawling along the floor towards them.
Atienna turned her attention to the rink itself—rather, she turned her attention to those who dotted the rink. In the dim light, she struggled to make out faces—to seek out that white-tattoo that could be made out even from a distance. She wasn’t sure why she was keeping to this search. The evidence thus far indicated that Francis was integrated into this place—‘Fran-Fran’ and the fact that Francis was socializing with the people here.
Peculiarly enough, if they did find Francis here, it would be indicative of the fact that he was integrated here. If they didn’t, that increased the possibility that he was ‘normal.’ So, in that case—it would be better not to find him, wouldn’t it?
They made one round of the rink.
Atienna spotted Olive, Trystan, Lavi, and Claire hanging by the railings inside the rink. Opposite of the railings stood Felix and Eunji. Felix appeared on edge—his gaze never leaving Claire’s face. Eunji appeared to be playing a more relaxed demeanor. Olive seemed amused by it all—though he appeared more interested in Eunji than anything else7.
“Olive seems to be very fond of Eunji…” Atienna said more to herself than anyone else.
“Hm? Yeah,” Werner replied. “They’re dating. On and off, I think. Relationships these days are really complicated these days. I think that’s because kids are getting smarter and smarter. You know—for me—if someone does something nice for me, I think ‘Wow! What a great guy!’ but I’ve heard that sometimes other people think ‘Why are they being so nice to me?’ I wonder why people think like that.”
“Paranoia?” Atienna suggested—again more to herself. “Caution?”
Werner hummed. “Someone told me once that the smarter and more complicated we think, the more unsatisfied we’ll be. So maybe it’s what you said and that too?”
“Who told you that…? Jericho…? Am I correct in assuming that that’s… ‘J-man’…?”
“Oh, yeah. Jericho is J-man; J-man is Jericho. He always says cool and complicated things and I don’t get it half the time, but it wasn’t him who said that.” Werner shrugged absentmindedly. “Someone else did.”
“I don’t remember who.”
Atienna quieted then pressed. “Werner, Cadence was telling me that most people here are immigrants. Is that… true?”
“Huh?” Werner stared at her blankly for a moment. “Oh, I’m pretty sure Caddy’s parents or grandparents immigrated here, so I don’t think she’s ever stepped outside of Ndoto. Nico says she’s sheltered, but being sheltered isn’t a bad thing, is it? I think it’s a good thing—shelter. What do you look for when you’re cold and alone? Shelter!”
He sounded almost like the advertisements Atienna had seen in Cadence’s newspapers back in the Twin Cities. Though—shelter…? That word was of great importance to Werner—she knew—just as ‘guilt’ was to Olive, ‘circumstance’ and ‘situation’ were to Cadence, ‘freedom’ was to Maria, and ‘reason’ was to Jericho..
A sign of a dream? Or a sign that the one who could be machinating this entire scene knew them well. Or a sign that everything that had come before—reality as she knew it—was a delusion rooted in this reality.
Atienna smiled then pushed on—“You mentioned… her parents?”
“Aw, yeah… They went to the tree when Caddy was real young, so I don’t think she really remembers them much. Allen raised her himself actually. He raised all of them himself. ”
Werner nodded. “At the very center of Ndoto. You know in the Baobab Tree District where you live.”
Perhaps… a copy of the Great Tree? A dream-like representation? Or a false machination. Or—
“Ollie came here with his parents but he was really young when he came so I don’t think he remembers anything from outside of Ndoto. He says his parents talk about it sometimes…”
This too was as Atienna suspected it to be. If this were a dream, this would be exactly how she would imagine it to be for Olive. Or perhaps this is how Olive would imagine it to be?
“And you?” Atienna inquired, scanning the crowd again.
“Me—yeah, I came here with my mom when I was a kid. That was a long time ago—”
Atienna stared. “Your mom…?”
But why…? If this were a dream, then Werner’s mother would have been removed from the equation. At least, if this were her own dream it would.
“Oh yeah,” Werner rattled on, starting to bob his head to the music, “I think she’s coming to visit sometime next month. I think she’s just stopping by to see Kaiser—not me… But you know what? Kaiser deserves the attention so…”
Atienna tried to digest the information she’d just learned.
Atienna looked up at him. “So you’ve seen what it’s like outside of Ndoto?”
Werner frowned slightly, looking away. “I don’t really like to talk about it…”
Atienna felt her lips thin despite herself. Her palms itched. She wanted to know but she didn’t . “Was it that terrible?”
Werner remained silent.
“I think it would help with my VNW if I knew more about what exactly”—you think, Atienna added in thought—“is outside of Ndoto.”
Werner looked up at her. “Really?”
Atienna nodded after a moment’s hesitation.
“Um…” Werner’s face displayed clear discomfort.
Atienna felt something akin to guilt tickle her chest. Either this person was Werner, a dream taking the shape of him, or some conjuration. Whatever it was, Atienna admitted she had a weakness to this face and five other faces.
“Okay, if it helps…” Werner began. “So where I came from there was a bunch of political stuff going on. There were two groups, and they believed in different things. And it was like… you were either one or the other. People were really serious about it. If you were on one side but a family member was on the other, there’d be a blow out.”
That sounded very much like the Capricorn she knew. Peculiar. Histories in this place paralleled the histories of the reality that she knew. Parallel lines never crossed though.
“So… is Capricorn still out there…?”
“Capricorn…?” Werner’s brows met. “You mean people who’re Capricorns?”
“Ah, is that what you call Capricornians?”
Werner cocked his head again. “I’m sorry… I don’t get it…. You guys keep saying things about Virgo and Capricorn. You mean like… the horoscopes? Cadence is more into that stuff than me.”
“Horoscopes…?” Atienna frowned now. “I… was referring to the countries…”
Atienna stared. “Werner… what country did you come from?”
Werner opened his mouth—
Atienna was suddenly bumped into from behind. She stumbled forward slightly but Werner caught her before turning to the alleged offender with an oddly dark glare.
“Whoops, sorry—oh, hey there, ‘stranger.’ Fancy bumping into you here.”
Werner immediately brightened. “Ollie! Aw, did you come to visit us?”
Atienna turned to see that it was indeed Olive skating right beside her—moving forward, facing backwards. An impressive feat.
“Yep,” Olive replied before thumbing towards the opposite side of the rink. “And your friend was looking for you. Iris. She had two bottles of beer with her, so you better watch out.”
“Huh? Oh,” Werner said, brows rising before he chuckled. “She probably wants a drinking buddy.”
Olive, still skating backwards, fell into pace beside Atienna and looked her up and down. “Seems like someone else needs a buddy too. Want to switch?”
“Sure, sure!” Werner said. “Oh, can I ask you a favor?”
Olive arched a brow. “Sure.”
“My freezer kinda broke and froze shut the other day—”
“So you want me to fix it and get it back open again?”
“No, no, I fixed it—opened it.” Werner brightened before his face fell. “But I broke it right after… Could you swing by and fix it for me?”
Olive made a familiar expression for once—one of annoyance. Then he shrugged and nodded. “No problem. You open Monday, right? I can come by Sunday.”
“I’ll bake you some strawberry tarts—”
Olive looped his arm in Atienna’s arm and took her away from Werner. Out of the corner of her eye, Atienna could see Werner gliding to one of the rink exits.
“How’s the delusion going?” Olive drew her attention away.
“A rhetorical question, I assume?” Atienna returned pleasantly as she turned back to him. “Have you seen Francis around?”
“As in Foxman?” Olive looked disappointed by the topic choice. “Cadence’s brother? Yeah, I think I saw him talking to a couple people back there.” He didn’t point in any direction. “You know he was acting kind of weird earlier…. I wonder… Maybe he has VNW too…?”
“Do you think so…?” Atienna caught sight of the way Olive was studying her—studying her reaction. She smiled. “Would it be more entertaining for you if that were the case?”
Olive snorted then shrugged. “Hey, can you skate backwards?”
“I can hardly skate forward.”
“Maybe if you learn the backward versions of things first, you’ll be able to understand the forwards version of things. Like if you understand the inside of a TV, you can understand how to use it.”
“Do you need to know the inner workings of something to be able to use it or do it? There’s something called—”
“Abstraction,” Olive finished. “You don’t have to know the inner-workings of something to know how to use it—but if you’re having a hard time understanding how to deal with something on the surface-level, checking out the other way’d help, right?”
“And… this is your argument for me to skate backwards with you?”
Olive merely offered her a smile—or perhaps it was a smirk. Whatever it was, he was clearly enjoying himself. It was something Atienna would have smiled fondly upon herself if it weren’t for the fact that she was the object of his amusement.
Atienna studied him before continuing to scan the crowd for Francis.
They made another round of the rink and passed by a group of adolescents Atienna only vaguely recognized. Olive offered a friendly wave, and the group offered waves back.
“Olive…” Atienna drew carefully, studying the adolescents as they rolled away from them. “What’s outside of here? Outside of Ndoto?”
“Uh, weird question.” Olive studied her now with actual concern. “Is your VNW that bad…?” When Atienna didn’t answer, he continued, “Absolutely nothing. There used to be something but not anymore…”
What? Now that was ridiculous.
“There are some people at the outer border though,” he continued. “Some people waiting to get in. ELPIS is very passionate about them. And about forcing people to stop eating meat, but you know.”
Atienna stared at him.
Olive smiled. “What? You don’t believe me?”
He abruptly slowed to a stop and looked towards the center of the rink. Everyone else had also slowed to a stop and was looking in the same direction. Atienna followed his line of sight and found a burst of copper light glittering at the stage there. That light grew and grew until it eventually took the shape of a human. The light burst like a bubble, releasing one Cadence Foxman onto the stage.
The music quieted.
Some people began clapping.
“This is fucking weird…”
Atienna glanced back at the railings behind her and found Derik leaning against it on the opposite side. Carl was there too and so was Klaus. Gilbert was—
“The lieutenant went to the restroom6,” Klaus said, clinging to the bars. He was sweating slightly. “He said he’d be back.”
Olive snickered—probably at their appearance.
“You seen Francis?” Carl asked.
Atienna shook her head.
The lights dimmed.
Atienna looked back at Cadence who was now holding a small microphone.
“Thank you for coming to our grand opening, everyone!” Cadence exclaimed, waving her free hand in the air. “We appreciate each and every one of you. We hope you’ve enjoyed yourself so far, and I hope you enjoy being the audience for my new, never-before-heard single that’s releasing next month!”
Cadence snapped her fingers and the lights went wild—the crowd too. An ethereal and synthetic beat began to pour out from somewhere. Cadence swayed to the rhythm before she threw out her hand and belted out into an energetic melody.
Atienna couldn’t quite make out the words to her song.
Carl grimaced behind her before he muttered, “You know… she’s actually really good.”
He was right. Cadence shone like a star. It was impossible to look away.
Cadence took an abrupt step forward. As soon as her heel clicked against the ground, copper light sprung up from the floorboards. It unfurled like ferns, blossomed like flowers, spreading all across the stage and spilling onto the rink floor. It swept right beneath Atienna’s feet and then crawled up along the walls.
When Atienna’s eyes adjusted to the light, she found that she was no longer standing in the rink but in an open field that stretched green in all directions. The long blades of grass swayed to an invisible breeze, and the roller-bladers wove through the green with ease. The sky above her head was a clear blue and the sun shone brightly—but not too intensely. Almost the perfect light. Unbelievable almost—the extension of the conducting.
Cadence was still standing, still singing on her raised platform at the center of the field.
“Where the hell did the railings go,” Carl snapped behind her, fisting empty air in the place the railings once had been.
The rollerbladers, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying the song and scenery. They swayed to the melody.
“Come on.” Olive tugged on Atienna’s arm, drawing her closer to the stage and the moving crowd. “You don’t dance?”
Before Atienna could answer, he whipped her around and took both of her hands in his. Without warning, he began to spin around, dragging her along with him. Whenever she fell forward, he would lean back in the opposite direction and jerk her into the right position.
Olive laughed as they circled the stage. It was not a laugh of cruelty but a pure laugh. He was enjoying himself clearly, whole-heatedly. Atienna allowed herself to savor his expression and the sound for a moment. A short-lived moment. She was bumped again from behind by a trio of roller-skaters and flew out from Olive’s hold. When she stopped spiraling out of control, she found herself at the center of the crowd—surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
“Olive?” she called out, searching.
The only recognizable person in sight was Cadence who still frozen at the stage at the center of the field.
“Please clear the floor for our newly engaged couple!” Cadence pointed to the far corner of the crowd. “This is a song just for them!”
Atienna was then shoved to the side behind the other roller blades and nearly crashed into the floor. With difficulty, she managed to drag herself to near the front of the crowd—though the man standing in front of her blocked most of her view. Still, she caught a glimpse of the backside of two figures standing at the center of the floor. A young man and a young woman. The man’s hair was blonde, and he appeared to be wearing a suit. The young woman across from him had sleek black hair braided halfway down her back. Although Atienna couldn’t make out her face, she could still discern the woman’s blouse that was polka-dotted with small birds and her flared-out pants. The man and the woman’s hands were intertwined—their movements in sync.
Atienna couldn’t move forward far enough to actually see them. Eventually, the music quieted and the couple disappeared into the opposite lip of the crowd. The crowd started moving again afterwards as a chipper tune flooded the area. The bright fields flickered out of existence a moment later and the familiar rink took its place.
The stage Cadence once had stood at was empty.
Atienna soon realized she was stranded at the center of the rink. Standing on unstable feet. She took a hesitant step forward and nearly lurched forward. She managed to catch herself before she made a spectacle of herself, fortunately, but was unable to move any further than that. She looked around for Olive, Cadence, or Werner. Nowhere to be seen.
“You look like you’re searching for something you’re hoping you won’t find.”
That voice—low and deep just as she remembered it.
A familiar dark-skinned man towered behind her. His dark hair was swept to the side in a style she didn’t recognize. She didn’t recognize his shirt either. Gone was his always slightly crooked suit and tie. In its place was a nor did she recognize the shade of his glasses. The smile he wore—that too was unfamiliar. The meaning behind it—unknown.
Jericho…? she tried out of habit.
“Atienna.” Jericho pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and raised his camera. “Do you mind?” The corner of his eyes crinkled.
A sense of uneasiness overcame Atienna. She felt as if she were facing a challenger of some kind instead of a friend.
“Do you?” Jericho tapped the rim of the camera lens.
“I… I haven’t ever been told that I’m the photogenic type,” Atienna replied.
Jericho chuckled, the sound coming out a deep rumble. “What? You can be honest with me. If you don’t like your photo taken, then say it. There’s no reason to be diplomatic about something like this.”
“Every situation requires a bit of diplomacy, don’t you think?”
Jericho leaned back slightly. “Hm… They were right. You really don’t seem that different at all.”
“I’m assuming rumor has spread rather quickly,” Atienna murmured, “if we’re talking about what I think we’re talking about.”
“Rumor has spread,” Jericho said, pushing up his glasses, “but the person that rumor is pertaining to doesn’t seem to think that rumor holds any merit… Now what does that say about the rumor? Or about the person?”
Atienna blinked in surprise. I was quite jarring—the fluidity with which Jericho spoke. She had found a sort of familiarity and comfort with the constant of his stolid staccato, so hearing him speak like this was…
“Hey, Jericho,” interjected a familiar voice, “Late to the party again, I see.”
Atienna turned to find Olive rolling towards her again.
“Not late,” Jericho responded, lifting his camera again. “Just preoccupied.”
“Too preoccupied to watch me finish my game? Joking obviously.” Olive offered Atienna a smile a second later. “Lost you in the crowd there.”
“I’ve got it from here,” Jericho said, lifting his camera and taking a blinding white snap of Olive’s face. “Go have fun.”
Olive rubbed his eyes as he skated away with a wave.
Atienna returned her attention to Jericho.
“You must be confused,” he said. “Searching for an explanation—a reason—maybe for why nothing is as you remember it.”
Atienna let out a quiet breath and studied his foreign familiar features. “That is what they call VNW, isn’t it?”
“Who is they? Me? Everyone here? The people of Ndoto? You?”
“Do you think you have VNW?” Jericho asked. “Relatively speaking, that’s the only opinion that really matters, right? So let’s move on from the topic of what may be a delusion and what may be real and instead address what is better-”
A shout cut the conversation short.
Atienna whipped her head in the direction just in time to see a man fly through the air and crack into the railings just across the rink. He scrambled to a stand immediately and clutched the camera hanging from his neck before he was aided to his feet by another man who came to his aid. Said man was holding a wine bottle in his left hand.
The roller-skating crowd stopped and stared.
Someone whistled—Olive, leaning back against the railings on the opposite side of the rink. He looked absolutely entertained. Beside him stood Derik, Klaus, Gilbert, and Carl who were all ogling another corner of the rink where Werner was clambering over the railings. He was accompanied by a startling familiar young woman wearing a blue polka-dot dress. The woman’s hair was a fiery orange.
Klaus sucked in a breath.
“Holy shit,” Derik muttered, “it’s the chain bitch from the train.”
ELPIS Leader Iota. The first iteration of them that Atienna and the others had encountered at least. The identity whom the first Iota had assumed—Iris McKillop, a Reservoir War criminal who was rumored to have drunk the blood of children.
“Look,” the thrown man stammered, holding his hands up. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry”
“You going t’let him go just like that?” Iota snapped.
Her accent. It was different.
Werner glanced back at Iota and grabbed the railing beside him. Indigo light spilled out from his fingertips and coated the thing. With one quick jerk of his hand, he quite literally ripped the railing from its place and pointed the glowing, make-shift weapon at the man across from him.
“Don’t apologize to me!” he snapped. “Apologize to Caddy!”
At that moment, out from the nape of his neck crawled an oh-too-familiar tattoo of a dark blue scorpion. Atienna barely had the time to register it before Werner charged forward, metal railing swinging with both hands. Someone rushed forward beside Atienna and in-front of Werner just before the metal contacted its target. A burst of bright, blinding gray light drained the room of color. When it faded, Werner’s metal make-shift pipe was no longer coated in indigo light; and Jericho was now holding the top of Werner’s weapon—preventing it from swinging down any further—and standing between Werner and the other man.
Werner stared—almost glowering—before he brightened. “J-man? J-man!”
Jericho pushed down the metal rod slowly. “Werner. What’s going on here?”
Werner’s gaze darkened and he seethed as he pointed the metal piece at the two men, “They took pictures of Caddy!”
“Bad ones. When she was in her dressing room. They snuck in somehow.”
“I see…” Jericho’s eyes narrowed as he looked over his shoulder towards the two men. He eyed the cameras hanging around their necks. “And that’s why you made them black and blue all over—”
“Oh. Caddy did that, not me,” Werner replied. “I’ll do worse—”
“Werner,” Jericho interjected, “are you drunk?”
“No…” Werner looked to the side for a moment. “A little…”
“What does it matter if he’s drunk,” Iota snarled from beside him, punching her first into her palm. “You can still smack someone around if you’re drunk.”
“Iris, come on.” Jericho sighed, facing her. “Are you proud to say that this is what you’ve been up to since you’ve left ELPIS?”
Iota—Iris—scoffed. “Is this yer try at gettin’ me t’join back up again? I already told ya. I’m done with ya.”
Atienna tried to find reason in the revelation.
Why was Jericho still in ELPIS in this place? It was like how Werner’s mother still had contact with him here. It didn’t make sense in this dream-like place. This nuance was too real.
Werner looked between Jericho and Iota in confusion.
Jericho let out a long breath. “Okay. Werner, let me take care of it—”
A whirring sound cut Jericho off short as the wine bottle that the thrown man had once been holding hurtled towards him. The bottle was coated in a luminous orange light that Atienna assumed was vitae. Instinctively, she started forward but was beaten to the rescue.
Werner darted forward and caught the bottle in his hand, crushing the glowing container in the palm of his hand. Its red liquid contents splattered onto the ground alongside its glass shards.
There was a beat of silence.
“You just tried to hurt, J-man, didn’t you?” Werner snapped. “You’re really asking for it now!”
The anger was foreign, but the motivation behind the anger was not. Whispers followed the spectacle, but no one moved to intervene.
Jericho again placed a hand on Werner’s shoulder again. “I’ll take care of it.”
After a beat, Werner lowered his weapon and nodded. Jericho paced over the two offending men who backed away at his approach. There were whispers in the crowd again.
“Look, I’m sorry about throwing the bottle,” one of the men said, “but we weren’t doing any harm. I was thrown half-way across the room okay. If that’s not imposing on anyone’s happiness, I don’t know what is—”
“Cameras are used to capture precious blips in time—moments that can never be relived again. Oftentimes, these are memories of happiness.” Jericho stopped short in front of both men. “Using a camera for less meaningful and artistic reasons…. diminishes the art in itself.”
Jericho tapped onto the camera hanging around one the closest man’s neck. Gray light spilled out from his fingertip and coated the device in the same color. A second later, the entire thing disintegrated into dust.
“Hey!” the camera-man snapped. “What’s the deal—” The man fell silent after seeming to notice that Jericho had not lowered his hand.
“I don’t speak for the owner of the establishment, but I doubt they’d be very welcoming seeing what you did to their family member,” Jericho interjected as he lowered his hand. You two can leave, but I’m sure you’ll be receiving a visit from the guidance officers.”
After the two wayward men left, Jericho brought Atienna, Gilbert, Derik, Klaus, and Carl into the waiting room that Cadence had brought them into earlier. Atienna had tried to locate the Sagittarians as they were traversing back to this room, but only caught sight of Claire and Olive snickering to themselves. The two offending men had been walked out of the premises by a couple waiters of the establishment.
“You get into fights, and you get yourself hurt, and then what…?” Cadence sighed as she bandaged Werner’s hand.
It had been embedded with fragments of glass shards just a moment ago before Cadence had taken on the arduous task of removing each fragment with a pair of tweezers—a task she’d taken from Atienna.
“I thought it’d look cool…” Werner mumbled. He was seated on the couch in front of Cadence.
Cadence quirked a brow.
“I wasn’t thinking,” he admitted a beat after.
Atienna could smell the alcohol on him from where she sat on the adjacent couch. Gilbert, Carl, and Klaus were situated just beside her while Jericho was leaning against the wall just opposite. Derik meanwhile had taken a spot against the wall in the far corner.
“I can take care of myself just fine.” Cadence sighed. “The reason I didn’t make a big deal out of it is because I was going to let the guidance officers handle it. Now it’s much more complicated. What do you think Nico will say when he finds out?”
“Wha…? Don’t tell Nico…” Werner paled. “Please? I don’t want him to get worried…”
Cadence sighed and placed a hand on top of his head. “Well, if you didn’t want him to get worried then maybe you shouldn’t hang out with hooligans like Iris who rope you into doing things like that.”
“She’s not a…” Werner frowned. “She’s my friend.”
“Oh, then what am I?”
“My friend too..”
Derik shook his head and snorted. “Shit.”
Cadence hummed, ignoring him. “If she’s that good of a friend, then where is she right now?”
“I think she went out to ride out with some of the other guys,” Werner said, expression lightening. “Hope they have a good time.”
“Werner…” Atienna drew. “The tattoo that I saw… there was one on your face… of a scorpion.”
Cadence sighed again.
“Oh yeah! That’s one of my favorites.” Werner chuckled, words slurring. “I met a couple of guys a while back and they gave it to me for free. Pretty jive, right?” He started pulling his shirt off. “I can show you my other ones—”
Atienna moved forward to stop him as did Cadence.
“Some other time maybe…” Atienna drew, glancing back at the others in the room.
The door creaked open and a voice rang out—“That opening certainly went off with a bang if I do say so myself.”
Cadence whipped around and brightened as she clasped her hands together. “Francis!”
In the door frame stood Francis Foxman, dressed in a familiar business suit aside from the flared out pants. He wore a pleasant, business-like smile, and his face was bright and clear—‘clear’ as in there was no tattoo on his face.
“How was your dance?” Cadence asked, clasping her hands together. “You two were so cute! It was so romantic!”
“Have to say Charite led me the entire time.” Francis chuckled.
“Charite…?” Carl’s brows met. “You mean Omicron…?”
“What…?” Francis entered the room fully and nodded at his brother. “Hey, what are you doing here, Carl? I heard from Cadence you’ve got VNW. You shouldn’t be here. You should be at home. Resting.”
Carl swore loudly as he buried his head in his hands. “Dammit, Francis… not you too. Come on.”
Francis stared at him with a frown before smiling affably. “‘Not me too’? Now what’s that supposed to mean?” He slid a hand into his pocket as he approached Carl and placed a hand on his back. “You’ve got a free sick day, Carl. Why not just take it?”
Carl froze at the gesture, and his eyes widened.
Atienna knew what he was thinking, realizing.
“Francis… your tattoo… it’s gone…”
Francis arched a brow. “Now when did I get a tattoo?”
“Tattoos are cool,” Werner mumbled..
Carl gripped Francis by the sides of his arms. Francis, your… head’s on straight? I mean—you know I don’t mean to jab at you or anythin’ when I say that. Y’know I got you about the Theta thing, but if you’re you—”
Atienna could hear faint music in the sound.
“Now, given the circumstances,” Francis said, “hearing you ask me if my head’s on straight is pretty ironic.”
Derik grimaced and interjected, “Hey, Geminian. That’s not really the chain smoking depressed bastard. Look at him. He’s not a part of ELPIS.”
“You usually throw people under the bus that easy?” Carl narrowed his eyes at Derik. “How the hell do we know that?”
Francis’s eyes narrowed slightly at the statement, but instead of commenting, he raised his hands politely. “Hey, let’s all take a chill pill.”
Carl made a face.
“You see?” Derik challenged with a grumble. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” He eyed Gilbert. “Lieutenant?”
Gilbert remained silent, motionless. Derik hesitated for a moment before walking himself right out the door. Klaus startled before looking back at Gilbert seemingly for direction. Gilbert didn’t provide any.
“No wonder you Capricornians had two wars after the Reservoir one.” Carl sneered at Klaus. “You’ve got no loyalty.”
Klaus bristled uncharacteristically. “I’m sorry, but if we didn’t have loyalty, we wouldn’t be here. So please stop with that.”
“Capricornians?” Francis arched a brow. “Reservoir? War?” He eyed Jericho.
“They all seem to be holding the same kind of… beliefs about the state of the world.”
“Folie a plusieurs. That hasn’t happened in a while,” Francis noted, brows raised. He glanced at Carl then at Atienna. “It’s interesting the way the guidance officers are handling VNWs now… right?”
Jericho nodded. “Instead of spending resources on containing VNWs, maybe the guidance council can start spending resources on opening the gates.”
“Opening the gates?” Atienna inquired.
“To allow more people into Ndoto,” Francis elaborated. “There are people still outside of here waiting to be let in. Children.”
Carl eyed him.
“Children above all deserve happiness,” Jericho said. “I think we’ll make a big splash with our next protest.”
Francis sighed. “Hopefully—”
A political discussion clearly.
Werner shot up to an abrupt and unsteady stand. “I need to go home. I need to make dinner for Nico—”
Jericho stepped in front of him. “You’re not going anywhere in your condition.”
“Nico’s working late tonight and staying at the office. Remember?”
“Oh, right…” Werner squinted before startling. “But Kaiser! He’s all alone… at shop-ome…”
“You told me you Otto was staying back to look after him.”
“Oh yeah…” Werner stared at him then at Francis as if just registering his presence. “Fran-Fran…” He dipped his head. “Sorry for the mess.”
“It’s alright.” Francis smiled politely. “You got rid of… unwanted guests, so I should be thanking you really. Those railings weren’t too expensive to install, and the buzz’ll be good for business.” He looked Werner up and down. “So you’ll be taking Werner, Jericho?”
“He’ll spend the night with me,” Jericho agreed. “He turned to Atienna and nodded at Gilbert. “Gilbert, Atienna, you both live in the Baobab Tree District. Klaus, you live in my district. I’ll take you guys home while I’m at it too.”
“Wait a minute,” Carl interjected. “Francis, you need to take us home.”
“Exactly.” France patted Carl on the back again. “We’ll head home after closing, Carl.”
“That’s not what I—” Carl snapped before pausing. “Wait… Is Allen there?”
“Maybe. You know he’s been on-and-off that business trip.”
Carl rubbed his chin. “Alright. If this ain’t workin’, then it’s time to try somethin’ else.”
Klaus tensed. “Lieutenant, should we be splitting up right now…?” When Gilbert didn’t answer, he tried again. “Lieutenant Wolff?” And then again. “Gilbert…?”
Gilbert finally looked at him then at Francis. “Obviously we have to find another way. And to find another way, we need a place to sleep.” He jerked his head at Francis. “Do you have a phone at your place?”
Francis arched a brow but smoothed it over with a smile. “Why yes we do.”
“Can I reach you by an operator?”
“An operator…?” Francis exchanged a look with Jericho. “You can reach us by telephone number.”
Gilbert stared for a moment. “Great. We’ll do that. Everyone, clock in tomorrow by 600 hours tomorrow. We’ll go on from there.”
Atienna agreed somewhat with his proposition—though she was concerned by his sudden duller demeanor. Since Francis was not as they expected him to be—just as she expected—it was time to metaphorically shift gears. There was an exit—this they knew for sure. They also knew there was something outside of Ndoto. Perhaps what lay beyond Ndoto was something more recognizable and this Ndoto was just a bubble created by an unknown party. Or it was a dream and exiting this bubble would make the dream pop and force whoever the dreamer was to awaken.
Francis smiled again. “I guess I’ll leave it to you again, Jericho.”
The night was cool and pleasant. Almost perfect. There were crickets chirping—the sound intermingling with the faint beat of bar music that was just barely audible from outside.
Jericho led them down the sidewalk in the direction Atienna had been walking down earlier. He had a backpack hanging from his shoulder and was supporting a stumbling Werner. Seeing their backs from the distance elicited a feeling inside Atienna she couldn’t quite place a finger on.
Atienna looked back at Gilbert and Klaus. The latter was walking a step behind the former, and the former’s gaze was trained on the ground. Thinking? Perhaps. His quiet demeanor was concerning.
When she looked forward, she found that Jericho had come to a stop. An obstacle stood ahead of him. A familiar man standing in front of a familiar store.
Atienna froze at the sight of him. Jericho, encountering the One who was blocking him from reaching home even in this place.
“Proteus,” Jericho acknowledged him, voice calm, tone unaffected.
Proteus briefly looked away from the window of the mirror store. “Jericho.”
“You didn’t come to the grand opening.”
“I didn’t feel like it and I doubt that Francis would welcome me,” Proteus replied.
Parallel histories here as well.
“I was surprised you went,” Proteus continued. “And biding your time with a policy maker no less. What exactly do you plan on doing?”
Jericho eyed the fliers in Proteus’s hands. “What do you plan on doing? You’re no longer a member of ELPIS, yet you’re using our name.” He pushed his glasses up. “You don’t represent our values, Proteus, so I’m going to have to ask you to hand me those fliers.”
“Our beloved chief guidance officer told me that I can achieve my happiness by understanding and recognizing myself…” Proteus stared into the store window—into the mirrors there. “But I can’t even see my reflection clearly, apparently…” He drew nearer to the window. “Even when I come close like this, I can’t see the whole picture.” He stared back at them. “Isn’t it the same for you?”
“Maybe you should stand at a farther distance from the mirror and in better lighting, Proteus.” Jericho extended his hand. “And maybe you shouldn’t take advice that comes in the shape of metaphors so literally.”
Proteus stared at the fliers in his hands for a moment before he silently handed them over.
The train station was underground and lit up with familiar green tube lights. Unlike the stations that. The train—a sleek and smooth-looking thing—pulled into the station slow and silent. It was a clean-looking thing with a narrow body and open windows. The seats inside were odd—built parallel to the walls of the train’s body. There were no booths in sight.
Jericho sat Werner down on one of the seats before sitting right down next to him. He unzipped his book bag and pulled out a stack of notecards slung on a metal ring before arching a brow at them. He motioned for the seats across from him.
Atienna hovered hesitantly before taking a seat. Klaus and Gilbert followed suit. Gilbert’s unusual silence was unusual. Before Atienna could address Gilbert subtly, Werner stirred—
“I did the right thing, right, J-man? I didn’t want to cause any trouble…”
“You chose to do what you thought was right,” Jericho replied, studying the first note card. “And that’s enough.”
This seemed to satisfy Werner as he moved onto a different topic—“What’re you studying?”
“Social psychology.” Jericho flipped a card. “I chose it as an elective.”
“Wow. That’s really nifty.” Werner’s brows rose as his words slurred. “You’re real smart, J-man. You know that I think you’re the bomb, right? I can always rely on you.”
Jericho smiled slightly. “I know.”
Werner rambled a bit more before he slumped towards Jericho. His head lolled forward, finding its resting spot at the crook of Jericho’s shoulder.
The train began to move forward and the tunnel flitted past the window behind Jericho’s and Werner’s heads. The click-clack, click-clack, click-clack of the train was—as everything here was—nostalgic yet foreign.
“So, what do you think of Ndoto? All three of you?”
Atienna looked up at the question then over at Gilbert and Klaus. Gilbert remained silent, while Klaus fidgeted for a moment.
“Would you prefer staying here or where you believe you came from?” He lowered his flashcard ring. “Well? There’s no right or wrong answer.”
Klaus looked over at Gilbert then at Atienna.
“You don’t have an opinion? You don’t want to choose?” Jericho pressed. “None of you? Why?”
Werner stirred and mumbled something incomprehensible.
“There’s a few reasons why people may opt not to choose,” Jericho said, “One: they’re afraid of the consequences of their choice. Two: because they don’t like any of the choices presented to them. Three: parental influence—whether that be a controlling parent or an indecisive one. Four: they don’t want to regret not making the other choice. Five: a sense of superiority. Six—”
“A sense of superiority?” Atienna repeated.
“Other people eventually settle on a choice, ultimately rejecting one side in favor of the other. Some people don’t—never swaying to pick a side. Accepting everything equally without bias.”
“That’s an interesting proposition…” Atienna drew, glancing back at Gilbert. It felt more like an accusation. A peculiarly targeted accusation. The Jericho she knew would never do such a thing.
Jericho chuckled. “Calling something ‘interesting’ is just another way of saying you’re in suspended disbelief, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t say that—”
“Your demeanor—at least yours, Gilbert, and Klaus’s and Carl’s too—tells me that your VNW places you in a world that is an… unpleasant place to live in. War, political strife, and crime empires.” Jericho placed his notecard ring back into his bookbag. “Now why would you lean more towards a place like that than a place like this where those things are unheard of?”
“Maybe because none of this is real,” Gilbert replied, finally breaking his silence.
Jericho studied him for a moment. “This is the reality you policy makers helped to build. If you disagree with any aspect of it—the long wait times to be permitted entry at the gates of Ndoto for instance—you have the power to promote change.”
“Usually long wait times are there for a reason,” Gilbert replied.
Klaus stared at him in apparent confusion.
Atienna regarded him with concern and slight curiosity.
“So you all say.” Jericho pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Some part of you is acknowledging this place as reality because why else would you follow me to a place that I’m claiming as your home?” He glanced at Atienna. “Atienna?”
Looking away from Gilbert slowly, Atienna studied Jericho’s face and the confidence and calm she saw there. This was not a person who would come to her for comfort. This was not a person who would come to anyone for comfort. No, this person was a pillar.
“This place is too real to be just a dream,” Atienna said, feeling Gilbert and Klaus stare.
“Are you saying that because you’ve actually reached that conclusion or because you feel the need to reach a conclusion?”
“Aren’t those one and the same?”
Jericho regarded her. “You know why they treat some VNWs so harshly? A person who thinks reality isn’t real won’t cherish that reality nor feel that their actions in said reality have any consequences. A person like that is dangerous not only to themselves and others but to Ndoto’s happiness.”
Jericho leaned back. “I’m sorry if I was too forward,” he said. “I’m just trying to gauge where exactly you are in your VNW.” He gestured widely. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions and maybe I can answer them for you better than others. Whatever the intention behind your question may be, I’ll answer them for you.” He gestured to Atienna. “Well?”
Atienna hesitated, studying Jericho carefully. “What’s… outside of Ndoto? I’ve heard different things about it—that there’s nothing out there, that there’s something out there.”
The train pulled out of the tunnel and Atienna was soon blinded by a bright white light bleeding in from the windows on Jericho’s and Werner’s side of the train. When her eyes adjusted to the brightness, she froze. Beyond the windowpane and standing tall in the far distance beyond the glittering cityscape was a great white tree. Its branches consumed the sky and extended far beyond what Atienna could see, and despite the distance, its trunk appeared thick and broad.
“What’s outside?” Jericho repeated, the light from the tree bleaching both him and Werner white from behind. “Have you ever heard that analogy about the cat that may or may or not be alive or dead in the box?”
“I have heard of it…”
Jericho smiled. “In my opinion, in our case, it’s flipped. We’re inside the box. It doesn’t matter what’s on the outside until we look. Do you feel the need to look?”
Jericho appeared to live in a small neighborhood in what was called the Child of the World District. The houses were bright and colorful—like every other thing in this place—and were spaced evenly apart from one another. White picket fences caged in the houses, separating one from the other. The sidewalks were well lit, illuminating the gardens housed in the yards of each house.
“This is an academic-oriented district,” Jericho explained as they strolled down the sidewalk. “Whoever is pursuing education attends school here. Occasionally, national KM-test preparation events are hosted here.” He shook Werner who was still using him for support. “Do you hear that, Werner?”
“No more tests…” Werner mumbled.
Jericho chuckled and then said, “I’ll drop Werner off my house first and then I’ll take you to where you live.”
They stopped in front of a light gray house with pheasant eye’s blossoming in the garden. The lights in the house were on, giving the house and the area around it a warm and full look.
Jericho dragged Werner up the steps with practiced ease before digging into his pocket and procuring a key. “My siblings are probably asleep right now, so I’d be grateful if you tried to stay quiet.”
“Siblings…?” Atienna whispered.
Of course, this was something she’d imagine happening in a dream-like reality as well.
Jericho opened the door and let them into a brightly lit and occupied kitchen. The walls were a pastel yellow and dotted with flowers, while a small stove top occupied the far corner. Beside it was a sink and beside that was an oven. It looked picturesque—like something she’d see in a catalog.
A man with a graying long beard and reading a newspaper sat at the round table in the corner. When he lowered the newspaper, he gave them a quick look over and stared Werner down from behind half-moon glasses. “Drunk again?” He grumbled before returning to his reading.
“Hi, Mr. el-Mahdy.” Werner waved.
The man grunted in response.
An older woman entered the kitchen from one of the wooden side doors. Soft strands of gray and black hair peeked through the shawl she had drawn over her head. The rest of her body was concealed by layers of fabric.
Atienna stared at the woman. She didn’t recognize her. No, that wasn’t quite right. She recognized the woman—but not in the physical sense.
“Hi, Mrs. el-Mahdy,” Werner greeted the woman with another wave.
The woman’s face warmed. “Hello, Werner—” She paused, staring at Atienna from where she awkwardly stood at the entrance. Then her gaze flicked over to Gilbert and Klaus. She gasped. “Jericho! Why didn’t you tell me you were bringing other guests?” She slapped Jericho lightly on the shoulder. “I would’ve prepared something more!” She moved to the stove and reached for the kettle there before pouring tea into porcelain cups she pulled from the cupboards over the sink.
Jericho stepped in-between the woman and Atienna. “They’re not staying long, māmā.”
Jericho’s mother, Atienna realized, feeling faint. She looked over at the elder man sitting at the table. His father. Faint memories of dashing through hot sand and weaving in-between colorful tent flaps overwhelmed her.
“I’m just swinging by Werner over the night again,” Jericho elaborated as he guided Werner through a door frame on the opposite side of the room. He jerked his head, signaling them to follow. “We’ll leave in a second.”
Atienna followed after Jericho—not so much out of trust but more out of half-familiarity.
The next room was warmly lit by a strange lamp and featured a couch, a television, and a small table stationed in-between them. The wall behind the couch opened up to a staircase that led to a dimly-lit, narrow hall hosted a plethora of pictures with the same five people depicted in them. Among the five was Jericho, his mother, his father, a young man who looked almost identical to Jericho aside from the fact that he was younger and sported shoulder-length long hair, a girl around Kamaria’s age who looked like his mother, and a girl around Kichea’s age who had a smile on in every single photo. Some frames featured Werner, Cadence, Olive. Atienna only found herself and Maria—dressed in a suit—in one of them. In that picture she stood in front of a podium shaking Maria’s hand. A beach photo, a ball game photo, a photo of a very young Jericho—perhaps ten years of age—covered in paint and hovering over a canvas splattered with reds, blues, oranges, greens. He was smiling—grin-wide—as he showed off his coated hands.
“Are you coming?”
Atienna looked towards Jericho who was half-way up the staircase with a mumbling Werner in tow. She glanced back into the kitchen and found that Klaus and Gilbert were both awkwardly sitting at the dining room table and being served tea by Jericho’s… mother.
Atienna hesitated for a moment before following Jericho up the stairs. There were seven doors lining the hall—three on each side wall and one at the very end. All but two of the doors hosted a decorated sign hanging from the knob.
One sign was dusted with sparkles and flowers and read ‘Sidra & Hayal.’ Another read ‘Ahlam’ and was surrounded by spiral scribbles. Another sign in front of a door near the end of the hall was much more decorated than the others and featured painted flowers in acrylic. It read—as expected—Jericho.
Atienna couldn’t help but smile slightly. However, that smile slid from her face when Jericho bypassed this door for the one just across from it. The sign on this door was scribbled in dark blue ink and read—PLEASE KNOCK BEFORE YOU ENTER. I’M WATCHING YOU!
Atienna took an immediate step back, pressing against Jericho’s door behind her. She balled her fists as she felt her heart hammer ferociously. Anticipation, fight-or-flight, eagerness—?
Jericho, hand on the knob, turned back to her. “What is it?”
“Who… Whose room is that? Your siblings?”
“We host students who live in different districts sometimes since the major school centers are here,” Jericho replied. “A friend of mine’s been living with us for the past few months. He’s a graduate student at my university. I’m not sure if you remember him but his name is—”
The door creaked open. A tanned face topped with a mass of curly black hair popped up from the crack in the door. The mole at the corner of the eye was unmistakable.
Atienna felt her blood run cold as she stared into Talib Al-Jarrah’s dark eyes.
“Oh my! Hello, Atienna! It’s a pleasure to be seeing you at this fine hour of the night!” Talib greeted her with a pleasant smile. “Policy work isn’t too taxing, I hope?”
“Libby!” Werner cheered, reaching out and shaking Talib’s shoulder. “You’re still up? It’s super late! You need to rest.”
Instinctively, Atienna reached forward, grabbed Jericho and Werner by the wrists, and dragged them away from the door. Both men turned back to stare at her, but Atienna kept her gaze trained on Talib.
Talib, in turn, made the crack in the door smaller. “Come in—quickly—before they hear you!”
“They?” Jericho chuckled before pressing through the door and out of Atienna’s grip. “The Organization again, Talib?”
“Yes, the Organization!” Talib insisted as he backed into his room. “Can’t you see that they’ve been watching our every move? Trying to see what satisfies us and putting up a faux play! VNW is just a cover up!” His gaze flitted to Atienna and whispered behind a comically raised hand. “It’s okay. I’m on your side.”
Atienna stared at him, processing what he’d just said, unsure if he was incorporated in this world, unsure if he was the mastermind behind it. They had assumedly extracted Scorpio from Talib, but—
Jericho looked back at Atienna. “Are you coming?”
Atienna hesitated, tightening her fist before entering and hovering
The room was small and square. Several posters were hung up all over the wall. Some look hand-crafted and featured sensational one-liner conspiratorial phrases like— DON’T TAKE THE KM TEST and WHAT IS OUR TREE REALLY? A small mattress was pressed into the corner of the room and was topped with rather ugly-looking stuffed animals. Across from it in the other corner of the room was a desk topped with a notebook and phone and a bookshelf.
“How’d the picture-taking go, partner?” Talib asked, falling back on his bed.
“It went alright. There was a little fiasco, but it was handled.”
Talib hummed in response.
“Partner?” Atienna queried, not allowing her gaze to leave Talib’s face. “May I ask… why he calls you partner?”
“We partner up for debate club,” Jericho explained as he gently guided Werner to the desk. “I’m guessing it’s a moniker that just stuck.” He pulled the phone off the receiver, dialed a number on the pad, and handed it to Werner.
Werner accepted it and placed the device to his ear as he rested his head on the table.
“Partners in debate, partners in sociology,” Talib rattled on, “partners in theater club—”
“Theater?” Atienna glanced at Jericho in surprise.
“I help with stage crew,” Jericho explained. He nodded at Talib. “Can you watch him for me again?”
Talib nodded, glancing at Atienna. “Something between the council and ELPIS?”
“Nothing political. Just helping a friend,” Jericho said, exiting the room. “I’ll be right back.”
Atienna stared after him before returning her attention to Talib whose gaze flicked between her and Werner. She tensed at this before making her way cautiously towards Werner. She stood at the back of his chair before subtly grabbing a pen from a cupholder sitting at the corner of the desk.
Talib stared at her, tapping his feet together. He stared at the ceiling for a moment before clearing his throat and spreading his hands. “So, Atienna, how’s work been?” He leaned forward.
Atienna put a protective hand on Werner’s shoulder. “Work…? How has work been for you, Talib?”
“Well, I’m not sure if you remember this but I TA for some classes and kids these days can be a little bit mean.” Talib cleared his throat. “Aside from that, classes have been decent. If I ignore that I’m most likely going to be in school forever, everything is spectacular.”
Atienna’s gaze hardened before she smiled pleasantly. “I was talking about your other work, Scorpio.”
Talib leaned forward and stroked his chin. “You mean my work investigating the Organization?”
Making a mental note, Atienna regarded him. “The investigation about Ndoto…? Where you said you were on my side?”
Talib leaned forward again, lacing his fingers together. “Exactly—”
Werner’s head shot up, and he spoke into the phone. “Hi, Liebling!” He played with the phone’s cord. “Aw, Liebling, I miss you too… Yeah, it was real fun! I took Atienna and the others around the rink—huh? Were they at the roller rink? Yes… they were—well, being cooped up is kind of sad, isn’t it? Jericho’s helping take them home now.” He glanced at the door. “No… Jericho didn’t talk about the gates or ELPIS with Atienna… at least I don’t think they did.” Werner chuckled as his face warmed. “Ich liebe dich too, Liebling.” He hung up the phone before resting his head on the desk again.
“Ah, love,” Talib said. “A beautiful thing. I myself find that I’m an unfortunate eternal bachelor. Still hoping to be best man at my partner’s whenever that happens. If it happens..”
A rap drew Atienna’s attention away.
Jericho stood in the doorway. “Ready to go home?”
Atienna glanced at Werner then at Talib.
“He’ll be fine,” Jericho assured. “Talib watches him from time-to-time.”
“And I’m paid finely with twelve cupcakes for each job,” Talib added, “so I’m not complaining here either.”
Jericho, Werner, Talib, Scorpio. An entangled thread. But if this possibly was not her Werner and this was not her Jericho, then…?
Gaze lingering on Werner, Atienna followed Jericho out from the room.
Klaus was dropped off in a neighborhood a bus ride away from Jericho’s neighborhood. He’d stood in front of the door awkwardly before it swung open to reveal a worried-looking young woman dressed in a floral-print dress. The woman cupped Klaus’s face, took him by the hand, and led him inside—but not before he shot Atienna and Gilbert a look.
Atienna rode a train after that with Gilbert and Jericho. They didn’t speak during the train ride as Jericho seemed preoccupied by studying his flashcards. Atienna scribbled a bit in her notebook before watching the glowing white tree come nearer and nearer in the distance through the window. Once they reached the district, Atienna could make out only the tree’s trunk due to its ginormity. It was located at the center of the district according to Jericho in a lake that stretched on for kilometers.
After taking yet another bus, they reached a quiet neighborhood that had a slightly calmer atmosphere than Jericho’s and Klaus’s supposed neighborhoods. The light cast from the tree bathed everything in an eternal glow. The gardens here were fuller with some flowers and vines and bushes even spilling out onto the sidewalk. The scents of the flora reminded Atienna of her own gardens at home.
“This is your neighborhood, Atienna—if you can recall,” Jericho said as they walked along. “I spoke to your family earlier, and they suggested that you spend the week at their place while you recover. I agreed with the sentiment. One should never be alone when they need to recover.”
“Sometimes solitude is needed though, don’t you think?”
“Occasionally,” Jericho agreed, “but it’s not a necessity unlike company.”
Why did it feel like every conversation she had with him was a sparring match of some kind?
Jericho led them to a small house at the curve of the neighborhood. As soon as Atienna was able to make out the house’s structure, she stopped short. It was an exact replica of her house in Virgo—down to the flapped entrance and the vines growing along the side of the wall. All the lights within the house were on and cast the surrounding area in a warm, cozy glow.
“Atienna?” Jericho inquired, already standing by the flap. “Are you alright? You’ve been skittish all evening. The VNW is understandable, but—”
Atienna’s heart began hammering as she heard hurried footsteps from within.
What was she trying to avoid? Why was she stalling? Perhaps she didn’t want to know. Truthfully, Atienna had not seen Cvetka pushing her mother through the football field. No, all she had seen was Cvetka holding a white cat and sauntering off behind the bleachers.
Truthfully, she had chosen. She had chosen to eat the eggs over the pancakes when Werner had offered her, and she had chosen chocolate over vanilla when Olive had offered.
So why would she imagine that she hadn’t chosen? All choices were neither right nor were they wrong—though a small choice could leave ripples in the pool, right? Regrets of not choosing the other remained, didn’t they8?
Perhaps if she had chosen vanilla or pancakes, she might’ve gotten a stomachache or a toothache and had decided to come straight home instead of going to the roller rink? Or perhaps she would have gone to the hospital—if this place had one—and she would never be having the encounter she was having now?
The flap lifted and the doorway became illuminated by warm light. A silhouette stood at the center of that halo of warmth. Not her brother, not her father, nor her sisters.
“Atienna…” the figure murmured, stepping forward into the night. “Are you alright?”
Atienna could not look away nor avert her eyes when she registered the face of the figure—of her mother—concerned and gentle.
What was real and what wasn’t..?